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Establishing Cultural Agility & Intercultural Competence

Marit Imeland Gjesme, Founder of CultureCatch Consultancy, guides Headquarter Magazine’s readers to successfully optimise cross-cultural teams and business meetings.
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This article originally featured in HQ Magazine. It has been republished with Meeting Media Group's full permission.

Marit Imeland Gjesme, Founder of CultureCatch Consultancy, guides Headquarter Magazine’s readers to successfully optimise cross-cultural teams and business meetings.

HQ: Can you share some tips on building cultural agility, and how we can build cross-cultural support and intercultural competence? How can we manage cooperation or changes involving several and diverse cultures?

MIG: So, what is culture? In a work context we mean the invisible things, “How we do things around here”, how we “by default” behave, communicate or solve problems. There are so many things we never think of, we just “do them” and take for granted that they will be equally normal everywhere.

Think of culture as a pair of glasses you wear all the time (but without knowing it)! They are a filter you see and interpret the world and other people’s behaviour through, and we should know that what we see is not “the truth”, but one of many truths! To work successfully with others who think and work differently, we need to adjust our learned, “mental software”. We must create an attitude of being ready and prepared with “mental adapters” to hit the wavelength of our target cultures! I like to put it this way; You may well be successful in working globally and across cultures – OR you can insist on doing business YOUR way!

And that’s exactly what cultural agility is about – being flexible, adapting and behaving in ways seen as respectful and efficient in the eyes of your target culture(s)! Being culturally agile, means you are culturally competent and ready to efficiently succeed across cultural barriers.

But how can we develop cultural competence? Imagine a ladder of development stages, starting with self-awareness; your own world views and how you may be perceived. From awareness, move to developing positive attitudes towards differences; be curious and wish to understand. With a positive attitude, build up the knowledge stage, learn the values, patterns and ways of others. And when knowing, start to implement your knowledge into adjusted behaviour and skills – in communication, leadership, negotiations or team participation.

What skills do you need to optimise success in multicultural projects?

We know for a fact that cultural diversity in projects often causes misunderstandings, conflicts and errors that break the success and efficiency instead of making it.  But we also know that multicultural projects have the potential to reach far greater results than homogeneous groups, making the challenges well worth conquering! Research has proven that the key difference between high and low performing diverse teams is whether the project leaders take culture seriously or not. The best ones MAP, BRIDGE and INTEGRATE their team people from start, instead of neglecting culture. Mapping determines geographical cultural category, and according to the Lewis Model we consider three main ones in the world, basically coded in colours red (Multi-active), blue (Linear-active) and yellow (Reactive). Then we map country specific values and individual unique working styles and preferences.

The Lewis Model of Cultures

Bridging and integrating, clarify and explain differences, find common ground and agreements, before making shared guidelines for how to work together. Integration also requires relationships-building, making sure roles and responsibilities are understood the same way and that synergies are optimised.

Patterns have been identified for how national cultures behave in general, which helps mapping and bridging. Important country-specific areas are the communication styles, since they cause so much misunderstanding and lack of trust. When supporting multicultural teams, make sure everyone learns the vital things about each other’s preferences for communication, listening, leadership, truth-definitions etc and get them off on a positive track from start. Our cultural profiling provides individual positions in the global cultural profile model (The Lewis Model, see model and map), and gives us a total team overview to work with. Helpful in many ways, and for all stages of building cultural competence (awareness, understanding, creating attitudes and curiosity, building competence and skills) – don’t forget to add patience, flexibility, generosity and a dash of humour!

How can we successfully optimise cross-cultural meetings to make them meaningful for all?

Basic clue: Make sure everyone feels respected! Let’s stick to the three overall cultural categories (multi-active, linear-active and reactive), what will they expect to get from a meeting?

Linear-actives (blue) will in general want a clear agenda, information sharing, punctuality and economic use of time, facts and figures, open expressions of direct opinions, discussions and issues presented and solved one by one. Confrontations and mutual challenging of each other are valued, while socialising is not a requirement as the task list is more important than building relationships.

Multi-active cultures (red) would be much more people- and relationship-oriented than facts- and product-oriented. They would like a flexible, random agenda, be far less punctual, prefer extended socialising, form alliances, inspire one another and close meetings with many loose ends, lots of good ideas but very few action plans. They would love humorous and creative activities, especially with a team building aim. Hierarchy, honour and dignity would be a major priority and group identification would play a much bigger role than for the individualistic and egalitarian blues.

For the reactive cultures (yellow), the aims would be harmony, showing (and expecting) respect and “protection of face”, no disagreements nor conflicts, no challenges on giving individual opinions, decisions or commitments to anything before after a long process. They would assess the others and the possibilities for building long term relationships, trust and potential business – based on how well the linear-actives and multi-actives were able to behave as seen from a reactive’s point of view. They would listen much more than speak, and never express anything that could put a harmonious atmosphere at risk. This might be time consuming, too indirect and frustrating for the others.

A multicultural meeting needs careful planning, balancing of styles and facilitation not to end up as an endless waste of time and cause of frustration!

How can we tailor-make effective marketing campaigns for diverse cultural markets?

No marketing campaign will be equally impactful everywhere! We MUST tailor according to target groups. Make sure that deeply rooted cultural preferences are emphasised. The three main factors of Aristotle’s advice for persuasion and influencing (Logos, Pathos and Ethos) are eternally helpful and inspirational. All three must be present, but with different weightage. Each of them corresponds perfectly to our colour-coded cultural category, and tells you that your marketing should focus strongly on: 

LOGOS has the best effect for the linear-active cultures – clear information, accountability, logic, facts and structure. For the multi-active cultures, the PATHOS works best – activation of emotions, passion, fun, charisma and personal bonding. The ETHOS will have a strong grounding in the reactive cultures, where the “who” is important – the senders known credibility and seniority, loyalty to long term relationships, respect and harmony always trump “newcomers” and whatever excellent offers they may have. Which means that you must patiently invest over time and build your reputation and network before your marketing can be really impactful in reactive cultures.

Remember, building cultural competence and agility is about knowing what “cultural category shoes” you are wearing – and understand how it feels to wear the shoes of the other categories, when you are walking together towards the same goals!

I hope reading this has given some inspiration and new ideas, maybe led to a desire to learn more in depth or work with your teams to develop their cultural competence! I’m happy to hear from you, and you can check out more on my website

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